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Castaway & Cannibal? 438 days drifting at sea

In this Monday, Feb. 3, 2014 photo provided by the Marshall Islands Foreign Affairs Department, a man identifying himself as 37-year-old Jose Salvador Alvarenga sits on a couch in Majuro in the Marshall Islands, after he was rescued from being washed ashore on the tiny atoll of Ebon in the Pacific Ocean. Alvarenga told the U.S. ambassador in the Marshall Islands Tom Armbruster and the nation's officials that he left Mexico in December 2012 for a day of shark fishing and ended up surviving 13 months on fish, birds and turtles before washing ashore on the remote Marshall Islands thousands of miles (kilometers) away. (AP Photo/Foreign Affairs Department The Marshall Islands, Gee Bing)

PortandTerminal.com, October 1, 2019

José Salvador Alvarenga spent a record 438 days drifting across 6,500 miles (10,500 kilometres) of open ocean before arriving in the Marshall Islands. This is his story.

HALIFAX, CANADA – Two men named José Salvador Alvarenga and Ezequiel Córdoba set out from the fishing village of Costa Azul, off the coast of Chiapas, Mexico on November 17, 2012, to go deepsea fishing.

Alvarenga was an experienced fisherman and was hoping that the two of them would be able to catch shark, marlin and sailfish. Alvarenga’s regular fishing partner was unable to join him that day and so he invited Córdoba, a 23-year-old coworker to join him instead. The two were friendly but didn’t know each other well.

Fishermen untangle a fishnet in the hometown of sea survivor Jose Salvador Alvarenga

In the end, Alvarenga would not set foot on dry land again for 438 days after drifting 6,500 miles across the Pacific. His co-worker Córdoba would never see dry land again, having died a horrible death during their ordeal at sea.

José Salvador Alvarenga, the lone survivor of the two, spent a record-setting 438 days drifting across 6,500 miles (10,500 kilometres) of open ocean before arriving in the Marshall Islands and safety.

The storm

Shortly after embarking, their boat, a 7-meter (23-foot) topless fibreglass skiff equipped with just a single outboard motor and a refrigerator-sized icebox for storing fish, was blown off course by a storm that lasted five days. During the storm, the motor and most of the portable electronics were damaged or lost as well.

Early on during the storm, Alvarenga managed to call the ship’s owner on a two-way radio and ask for help before the radio’s battery died. It was the last time anyone would hear from him for well over a year. Their small boat was battered by 10-foot waves that washed most of their meagre supplies overboard leaving the two alive, but adrift at sea.

Adrift at sea

Photo: For illustrative purposes only

After barely surviving the storm, their boat began to drift aimlessly across the open ocean. Much of the fishing gear was lost or damaged in the storm, leaving Alvarenga and Córdoba with only a handful of basic supplies and little food. Though they had caught nearly 1,100 lb (500 kg) of fresh fish, the pair was forced to dump it overboard during the storm to improve the small boat’s manoeuvrability in the bad weather.

The two castaways managed to survive by catching fish and birds and drinking turtle blood and rainwater. As days became weeks, Alvarenga and Córdoba learned to scavenge their food from whatever sources presented themselves. Alvarenga managed to catch fish, turtles, jellyfish, and seabirds with his bare hands, and the pair occasionally salvaged bits of food and plastic refuse floating in the water. They collected drinking water from rainfall when possible, but more frequently were forced to drink turtle blood or their own urine.

What happened to Ezequiel Córdoba?

Ezequiel Córdoba’s family have accused Alvarenga of cannibalism over the loss of their son Ezequiel Córdoba, the young coworker in this story

Alvarenga said the fellow fisherman he set sail with died after about a month at sea and that he threw the body overboard.

According to Alvarenga, his fellow castaway had become violently ill after eating a bird that they later discovered had ingested a poisonous snake.

According to Alvarenga’s account, Cordoba refused to eat some of the raw meats that kept Alvarenga alive — perhaps because of the experience with the bird — and he eventually died. Alvarenga kept Córdoba’s corpse on the boat and even spoke to it out of loneliness. After six days, Alvarenga realized his own insanity and threw the corpse overboard.

Before starving to death, Cordoba made Alvarenga promise to not eat his corpse and to find his mother and tell her what happened.

Ezequiel Córdoba’s family though have accused Alvarenga of cannibalism with regards to the death of their son and later filed a million-dollar case against the lone survivor, Alvarenga.


On Jan. 30, 2014, Alvarenga came ashore on the Marshall Islands, about 5,500 miles from where he set off. He was shaggy-haired, dehydrated and confused. The stunned islanders nursed him back to health and began piecing together his story.

Within two weeks, he was flown to his Salvadoran hometown of Garita Palerma, where his parents readied his childhood bedroom for his arrival.

Alvarenga cleaned up and reunited with his family

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